Moumita Sen, associate professor of Culture Studies at MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion, and Society
Kenneth Bo Nielsen, associate professor of social anthropology at the University of OsloThe run-up to next year’s state assembly elections in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh vividly shows us the extent to which political parties across the spectrum are currently engaged in wooing Hindu voters. This includes parties ostensibly dedicated to secularism and social justice, such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) with a strong support base among Dalits; and the Samajwadi Party that has traditionally championed the cause of certain Other Backward Classes (Roy 2021). The leader of the BSP, for example, recently appeared at a party event wielding a trishul (trident) amidst Vedic chants and the sound of conch shells (Lalchandini 2021) – symbols that we otherwise associate with the Hindu right when deployed in political life. And, the father-son leadership duo of the Samajwadi Party, Mulayam Singh Yadav and Akhilesh Yadav, have started portraying themselves as stout devotees of Hanuman and Parshuram – Hindu gods that have been aggressively appropriated by the Hindu right for many years.
Such overtly visible wooing of Hindu voters by virtually all parties in the Indian polity has become ever more pronounced across India in recent years. It started during Modi’s first term in office, and became spectacularly evident during the run-up to the 2019 elections. At that time, the strategy of the political parties in opposition to the BJP – at national and regional levels – was to reclaim the “real” Hindu identity from hindutvawadis in a hitherto unprecedented manner. While the term ‘soft Hindutva’ has been used so far to understand more moderate forms of selective appropriation of Hindutva ideology, we argue that the current, more wholesale strategy of appropriation of Hindutva by so-called ‘secular’ parties is better understood by a new term, a term which has also gained currency in the Indian media: competitive Hindutva. Our aim in this contribution is to shed light on how this term can help us make sense of Indian politics at the current conjuncture.
From Soft Hindutva to Competitive Hindutva
Soft Hindutva has been an integral part of Indian political discourse for a long time. In media parlance, soft Hindutva usually refers to the selective appropriation of certain elements of the Hindutva ideology in order to boost one’s Hindu credentials without giving the impression of having converted wholesale to the more hardline and aggressive version of Hindutva as espoused by the RSS and its affiliates within the Sangh Parivar.
For the Congress, soft Hindutva has been an often used strategy to woo a segment of the Indian electorate away from the BJP. Many voters, the thinking went, presumably supported the BJP because they felt that their Hindu identity was important, without, however, actually being bonafide hindutvawadis who subscribed to all, or even most of the core principles of the Hindu nationalists. A softer, more moderate version of Hindutva was thus likely to make such voters – who presumably had some discomfort with the vitriolic rhetoric and public violence of the Sangh Parivar – gravitate towards the Congress instead. This strategy has evidently not been successful. Rather, as Narendra Modi remarked already 15 years ago when he was chief minister of Gujarat, people are generally willing to pay a few rupees more for the real thing rather than settle for ‘an imitation product’ (Thakurta and Raghuraman 2007, 145).
In spite of Modi’s comments a decade and a half back, some media pundits saw his election as Prime Minister in 2014 as signaling a tectonic shift within the BJP. By emphasizing economic development and good governance, and by downplaying the Hindutva agenda, Modi was portrayed as embodying the triumph of soft Hindutva over hard Hindutva in Indian politics: Modi’s politics, or so it was hoped, would make the bigotry of Hindu majoritarianism subservient to larger economic and geopolitical concerns geared towards making India Great Again.
As we now know, Modi’s election in reality marked the defeat of soft Hindutva and the arrival of what we, inspired by recent media coverage, call competitive Hindutva. Today, the moderate allusions, innuendos and idiomatic repertoires of soft Hindutva are no longer a predominant mechanism in electoral competition in India. What we see now, not just in Uttar Pradesh but across the country, is rather a more blunt game of one-upmanship played out on the home turf of a considerably more assertive, even aggressive, Hindu nationalism, a change brought about by the long march through the institutions of the Sangh Parivar and its textbook Gramscian approach to building hegemony through civil society. We see this in political speeches, and in debates on both social and traditional media, where assertions of and disputes over the Hindu identity dominate. Self-styled secular political parties are now actively reclaiming Hinduism, fighting to define what it truly is, and building what they present as a competing Hindu identity to counter that of Hindutva. This is, we believe, a far more serious step towards building a clear ‘Hindu face’ for the secular parties – even those among them who are accused of being ‘pro-minority’ – than the selective appropriation of aspects of Hindutva that ‘soft Hindutva’ was all about. In light of this, we argue that we need a ‘harder’ term than ‘soft Hindutva’ to conceptualize these recent shifts in Indian politics. To illustrate what we mean by competitive Hindutva, we return to Modi’s first term in office and the long run-up to the 2019 national election, where competitive Hindutva really took shape and became the dominant mode of doing politics. Below, we draw on four brief cases from this period as illustrative of what we mean by competitive Hidutva: one involving Rahul Gandhi; two cases from West Bengal and Karnataka respectively, where political parties and individual leaders are foregrounding their personal faith and identity, and reclaiming Hinduism in unprecedented ways; and, lastly, Shashi Tharoor’s book Why I am a Hindu. We end by contextualizing these cases by viewing them from a Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi perspective.
Rahul Gandhi: not Hindu enough
That the Congress has progressively given up on its earlier soft Hindutva agenda could be clearly seen from the so-called AK Antony Committee report, produced after some soul searching in the aftermath of the party’s humiliating defeat in 2014. The report said that the party had acquired a pro-minority tag which needed to be shed. Since then, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has consciously and laboriously tried to portray himself as a person who believes in the Hindu faith and its gods. He has visited one temple after another in a concerted effort to “correct” this aforementioned pro-minority perception. His visit to the Somnath temple in Gujarat in 2017 – a temple once fabled for its wealth but which was raided and razed several times by Muslim chiefs (Guha 2007, 131) – which generated considerable attention was part of this effort, but it unexpectedly backfired when the BJP used the visit to claim that Rahul Gandhi was, in fact, not a Hindu. The claim was based on an allegation that Rahul Gandhi had registered as a non-Hindu when he visited the temple. Amit Malviya, the head of the BJP’s Information and Technology cell, openly accused both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi of not being Hindus, asking rhetorically on Twitter: “Gandhis lying about their faith?” The allegation was later proven to be false, but that did little to put the matter to rest. Sections of the media took the bait and made the story a major news point. Zee News, for example, asked if “Rahul Gandhi is not proud to be a Hindu” (Daniyal 2017).
Alarmed at this charge, the Congress refuted the allegation on social media and even held a press conference where they sought to reassure people about Gandhi’s faith and even his caste. A senior Congress leader said that not only was Gandhi a Hindu but a janeu dhari, a Hindu who wore the sacred thread that marked him out as a Brahmin. Rahul Gandhi went public to state that his grandmother (Indira Gandhi) used to worship Lord Shiva and that his entire family does the same. This was backed up by Congress leader Raj Babbar who said that as far as Rahul Gandhi is concerned, “Shiv Bhakti is being practiced in his home since a long time. Indira Gandhi used to wear rudraksha, which was only worn by those who worship Shiva”.
Other Congress leaders went further by returning the BJP’s fire. Senior leader Kapil Sibal, for example, claimed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was not a Hindu. “I want to ask how many times does the Prime Minister go to temples daily? The one who respects the sentiments of Hinduism also respects temples. You have quit Hindu religion. You have embraced Hindutva which has nothing to do with Hinduism. You are not a real Hindu,” he said. In addition, turning the question of being “Hindu enough” on BJP, Raj Babbar called Amit Shah a Jain (Inuth 2017).
Commenting on the Rahul Gandhi temple visit, BJP leader Arun Jaitley – echoing Narendra Modi’s remark from a decade and a half ago – said that those who paraded their newfound Hindu piety were nothing but clones. The BJP “has always been seen as a pro-Hindutva party and if someone wants to mimic us, I do not have any complaint”, he said, adding that there was, however, “a basic principle in politics, if an original is available why would anyone prefer a clone?” (Bhattacharya 2017).
Ram and Hinduism is not just the BJP’s domain: the Bengal case
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s influence and patronage of the festival culture of West Bengal has been widely discussed since her election as chief minister in 2011. One of the main political mobilization strategies of the Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) has been in the domain of festivities, particularly religious festivals. At the same time she has maintained her own brand of secular ideology by showing “equal support to all religious communities”, as distinct from her predecessors, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPIM’s version of secularism, which sought to maintain that the party did not have any formal engagement with public religious festivals – even if individual leaders at the grassroots often did.
Banerjee’s support for the Muslim community in terms of building housing for imams, Haj houses, sanctions to madrassas, in addition to her offering namaz, reciting the kalma and other such public symbolic gestures (Nielsen 2011), have led to a popular opinion among Hindus that she is “pro-Muslim”, or desperately trying to appease the minority in the interest of securing the Muslim vote (roughly 30% of the population). Even the Calcutta High Court has questioned her policies for seeking to ‘appease the minority section of the public at the cost of the majority section without there being any plausible justification” (Talukdar 2018). On the other hand, not just the Durga puja of Kolkata, but Saraswati, Kali and Kartik puja, are now five-day affairs in many census towns of Bengal sponsored by the same state and corporate machinery, aiming to compete with the grandeur of Kolkata’s Durga puja. The rising number, grandeur and state patronage of Hindu festivals by the TMC shows that Hinduism is ‘more equal’ among equals as a recipient of state patronage.
While Banerjee still claims that “only West Bengal can fight against … communal politics and intolerance and save the country” (ibid.), recent Ram Navami processions led by TMC to compete with the Viswa Hindu Parishad’s (VHP) procession cast severe doubts on this view. Even if a few historical instances of Ram Navami celebrations are known – for example a 200 year old mela in Murshidabad where Muslims and Hindus celebrate Ram Navami together – unlike the Durga puja, Ram Navami was never a popular festival in Bengal – until recently. In 2018, Ram Navami was marked by at least three prominent processions organised by the VHP, TMC and even the CPIM (who led a sampritir michhil, or communal compassion procession, on this occasion). In a bid to outdo the pomp of VHP’s procession brandishing swords and tridents, the TMC led a massive procession with participants wearing saffron headbands instead of their party symbols or colours. While the Kolkata police grappled with the vernacular and scriptural distinction between ashtra (instrument) and sashtra (weapon) (Times of India 2018) to bypass the law against bearing weapons in public, the Ram Navami processions all over Bengal were both spectacular and unprecedentedly massive. Predictably, these processions were followed by communal disharmony, violence, riot-like conditions in some districts of West Bengal, and at least five deaths in addition to bomb blast related injuries (Das 2018).
Partha Chattopadhyay, General Secretary of TMC, summed up best the reason behind his party’s enthusiastic rally: “The disgusting politics they [BJP] practice over Ram does not reflect the true identity of Hinduism. And are they [BJP] the sole owners of Ram Navami”? (ABP correspondent, 2018). The impulse clearly was to lay claim to Ram Navami not only in order to prevent the BJP from monopolizing the politics of Ram, but also to redefine a larger Hindu identity. The controversy over Ram resurfaced again in the more recent state assembly elections in 2021. During the campaign, Mamata Banerjee recited mantras dedicated to goddess Durga. When asked about this in the media, she repeatedly said that she is just as Hindu as the BJP: “Hinduism is not the property of BJP… I can teach a thing or two to Amit Shah about Hinduism,” she said. Around the same time, WhatsApp forwards were circulated widely in West Bengal with a video of Banerjee saying “Ram worshipped Durga when he was in trouble. So, who is bigger? Ram or Durga?” (India Today 2021). In this way, she cast the competition between her and Modi-Shah as a competition between Durga and Ram. While political commentators suggest that this is tantamount to a shift from “blatant minoritarianism” towards “soft Hindutva” to stem the growth of the BJP (Talukdar 2018), we argue that it is rather a clear example of competitive Hindutva as it emerged during Modi’s first term in office: A concerted effort at outdoing and outperforming the BJP in the game of defining an aggressive, public Hindu identity in the political domain.
From an “also Dalit” to an “also Hindu”: Siddaramaiah’s campaign
Electorally the BJP has never registered as strongly in the south as in the rest of the country. The exception has been Karnataka, where the BJP briefly led the government in 2007 and throughout the period from 2008 to 2013 (and again from 2019). However, as the 2018 state elections show, this southern state has increasingly been drawn into the ambit of competitive Hindutva. The changing political rhetoric of the former chief minister Siddaramaiah illustrates this.
Back in 2015, Siddaramaiah had openly declared himself to be a Dalit. “I too am a Dalit”, he had said, clarifying that poor people from any caste, community or creed who have been suppressed and who have remained socially and economically backward were all to be considered Dalits. “So, I am also a Dalit”, he had emphasized (The Indian Express 2015). While Siddaramaiah made these statements at a public gathering after inaugurating the Ambedkar Bhavan in Nanjangud, the contrast to how he chose to define himself in response to allegations levelled by Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath in late 2017 that Siddaramaiah had poor Hindu credentials is striking. Siddaramaiah responded by claiming that he was also a Hindu, and that he even had Ram in his name: ‘I’m also a Hindu. What is my name? It is Sidda-Rama. I’m also 100% Hindu,” he said (The Times of India 2017). While the examples might seem trivial and taken out of context, we believe that they do signal an important shift in the direction of competitive Hindutva, as also witnessed during the 2018 state elections where the BJP once again questioned Siddaramaiah’s Hindu credentials. In an earlier interview, Siddaramaiah had used the term ugragami to describe the Sangh Parivar, a term that may be translated as fundamentalist, but also as terrorist. The use of the term ugragami enabled the BJP to level allegations against Siddaramaiah’s party the Congress for being an anti-Hindu party that “defamed” Hinduism while, in Karnataka, allowing Muslim organisations such as the Popular Front of India to operate relatively unhindered (Yashee 2018). Yogi Adityanath added fuel to the fire by labelling the Siddaramaiah government “anti-Hindu” for overturning the beef ban that the BJP had introduced when in power in Karnataka. “If Siddaramaiah is a Hindu, then let him ban cow slaughter and beef in the state”, he taunted. Siddaramaiah responded by declaring that “no other party has as many Hindus as the Congress. Are there no Hindus in our party? Am I not a Hindu?” In a manner reminiscent of the Somnath case discussed above, Siddaramaiah also targeted Amit Shah: “Amit Shah said I am not a Hindu, but Amit Shah himself is not a Hindu, he is a Jain … He might believe in Hindutva but let him come out and say he is a Hindu and not a Jain” (Financial Express 2018). Clearly, ‘being Hindu’ was of crucial importance to Siddaramaiah’s politics.
Why I am a Hindu
Lastly, we turn to Shashi Tharoor’s latest book Why I am a Hindu (2018). While the book avowedly attempts to recover the greatness of Hindu thought from the clutches of “political Hinduism”, it is marked by a striking absence of caste. Most of the book conceptualizes Hinduism as a “World Religion” based on textual sources, whereas caste only comes up in small bits, for example when Tharoor states that he belongs to a “nationalist” family of Nairs, who shielded him from caste as a child (69); or that the term “Brahminism” as used by Dalits is a derogatory term for Hinduism (44-45). While arguing for panth nirapekshata or impartiality towards differences in religious traditions (rather than dharma nirapekshata or secularism) as a more fitting model for Indians, he says “those who think of dharma as extraneous to their lives can still live under the Indian sun” (Tharoor, 141-42). This veers dangerously close to the idea that India is a nation of Hindus, driven by principles of dharma even at the level of governance, where minorities following different panths will be gracefully included in it.
As Kancha Ilaiah, whose Why am not a Hindu (1996) has the opposite title to Tharoor’s, has rightly pointed out, Tharoor’s book is a political, not an academic one. In addition, it shows the divergence of the current Congress party from the Nehruvian principles of secularism and the closing gap between Congress and the RSS. Citing the striking caste-blindness of both Tharoor’s book and those who reviewed and welcomed it, Ilaiah reminds us how the caste-blind scholarship that draws a quick and seemingly innocent distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva, is forcing the Congress of Rahul Gandhi to own Hinduism, as a strategy to bring the Congress back to power. As we showed above, while Gandhi does this by presenting himself as a temple-going Hindu Brahmin, the Shudra upper caste Tharoor seeks to provide a theoretical framework to ‘Congress Hinduism’ against the BJP’s Hindutva. Nevertheless, as Iliah (2018) stresses, in the long run, the nation is endangered by this competition to assign Hinduness to India. This is the likely long-term effect of competitive Hindutva, and we see it on full display in the current Uttar Pradesh election campaign.
Conclusion: The Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi perspective
The cases above show how, as Jaffrelot (2018) has also recently pointed out, to be or not to be a Hindu has become a key question in Indian politics. In light of this troubled scenario it is worthwhile considering the perspective from the ideologues of a recent religio-political celebrations of the so-called “demon” Mahishasur by Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi communities, which has now crystallized as the ‘Mahishasur movement’ in different parts of India. Faced with a public sphere that is increasingly more imbued with Hindu symbolism and myths, they propose to build a counter-culture that seeks to deconstruct existing narratives while building a Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi storyworld. These activists of the Mahishasur movement maintain that a caste Hindu is not defined by her personal faith, but by her privileged location in the caste hierarchy. Politics on both the left and right is, according to them, dominated by caste Hindus, which in covert or overt ways maintains the caste hierarchy in all social and political institutions. From this perspective, the competitive Hindutva that we have described above reveals precisely this underlying Hindu identity that has been the contention among several Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi activists. It is not surprising, therefore, that the question of caste is kept assiduously away from all the budding Hindu identities in this game of competitive Hindutva. The underlying but often unarticulated premise that is thus being advanced is that the credibility and capabilities of a politician to govern can be measured by her Hindu faith and identity. And, conversely, that a politician’s Hindu identity should determine how she should act once in office. It is for this reason that we now see an intensely competitive Hindutva centered on publicly demonstrating credible Hindu credentials and forging a wider Hindu identity for political purposes. Indeed, Hindu majoritarianism has become such a powerful discourse that it has made political leaders almost across the board visit temples like never before, while at the same time no longer nominating Muslim candidates in substantial numbers: If political credibility (and national allegiance) depends on religion, non-Hindus become not just politically redundant, but outright untrustworthy (and anti-national).
This game of competitive Hindutva appears to be one that the BJP will likely win hands down. And, even in the case of an occasional loss, the larger Hindu nationalist movement that extends much beyond the BJP will find comfort in the fact that the game was played firmly on Hindutva turf. Indeed, just as the secular parties’ earlier soft Hindutva strategy effectively served to further saffronize India’s political space and shift the terms of debate onto Hindutva territory, the politics of competitive Hindutva looks likely to further aggravate this trend.
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